Wednesday, May 12, 2010


The nurturing power of ritual and the importance of supportive love have not been widely explored in modern poetry. I am not sure if all poetry is about loss, but most poetry is about loss. The poems below are far from cheerful. And yet I find them soothing. They connect us with the timeless.

“It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness” is one of the best proverbs ever created by humanity. Whether it originated in China or elsewhere is immaterial; it belongs to us all. Ideally, a poem, even a melancholy poem about loss, lights a candle of hard-won affirmation. That’s one reason we turn to poetry.

In Hirsch’s poem, we find a description of a ritual of commemoration performed by a secular couple. They can still recite the prayers, but they can no longer believe in the ancient deity the prayers invoke. And yet the man and the woman keep performing the ritual of lighting the yahrzeit candle, marking the anniversary of a loved one's death. The ritual itself, regardless of belief, has its beauty and emotional power. This has been confirmed by many who have lost connection with traditional creeds: it’s the ritual itself that nurtures us, soothes us, makes us step outside the daily trivia.


You’ve lit a candle on the counter between us,
a twenty-four hour mantra to your mother’s passing
from one realm to another twenty years ago,

distillation of grief, wick of suffering,
remembrance of how, after the stark drama
of her last illness, the tragic final act,

we ushered her out of her suburban home
like a pilgrim and handed her over to darkness,
releasing her spirit to the air, a wing,

and turning back to each other in light
in our fresh role as keepers of the dead,
initiates of sorrow, inheritors of prayers,

Lord, which we recite but cannot believe,
grown children swaying to archaic music
and cupping the losses, our bowl of flame.

~ Edward Hirsch, from Lay Back the Darkness


Do we need to believe in a particular religion for a ritual (any ritual) to perform a psychological function? I don’t think so. We can enjoy the beauty of it and the connection with others and with the past. 

Here is what Glenn Kurtz writes about the tradition of lighting the yahrzeit candle: 

The tradition of lighting a candle for the dead is probably as old as candles. It is so deeply ingrained a symbol, it hardly seems symbolic at all. The light pushes back the darkness; what was lost in obscurity returns to view. In the Jewish tradition, the yahrtzeit (literally, time of year) candle is supposed to represent the soul, and by lighting it we temporarily rekindle the dead. By remembering, we reanimate—this consolation, this illusion, lies at the heart of almost every commemoration of the people we have lost. He is dead, we acknowledge, but he lives on in us. We honor his memory, we believe, and in doing so rescue him from darkness and obscurity. The gravity and fragility of the commemorative candle must derive from this belief. Performing this ritual saves the dead from a fate even sadder (to the living) than death: being forgotten. Only our remembrance preserves them from this death after death.

(Southwest Review, Volume 95, Number 1)

There is a lovely fragility about candle flame. It wavers in a draft, but struggles to stay upright. It’s easy to blow out. It needs protection. The light illuminates, but also causes things to cast strange shadows, creating a pleasant mystery. Our faces look more attractive in candlelight’s forgiving softness. 

The point is: we don’t want to see all the details. Candlelight is like poetry: you leave things out. You let them remain in darkness. Only a small, intimate circle is visible. 

Even though we have electric light, we haven’t given up candles and I don’t think we ever will. The candle flame is beautiful. And ahead of all other symbolism, it’s like human life.


Dan Bellm’s poem is not as perfect in its craft, but its interesting content makes up for it. As I see it, blowing out the rough-burning candle but letting the calm one burn on signifies the choice of a nurturing love over a turbulent love life (or a turbulent life in general). There comes a time when we stop thinking “How boring” when we encounter a truly good person rather than a charismatic narcissist. A time when we want a quiet life rather than disruptive drama. The choice of the candle that’s “placid as prayer,” patient and steadfast, symbolizes this choice.


I lit the candles of the Sabbath and covered my eyes,
terrified in the mind as I was and waiting to rest.
And the evening passed. And as they reached their end
the one became turbulent, sputtering, loud,
the left on the table, the one facing my heart,

the heart of it burning out impure and rough,
a red with tarry shadows, spitting death at me,
the other placid as prayer, clear light and patient
in the copper hourglass bowl, steadfast as the soul
of the one I love, soothing me, being also alive,

and this one I knew would last and burn long tonight,
and other flail down like madness and hard living
of every sort, the darkness that is touched and felt.
And I sighed for the love, and sighed the poor candle out.
Then I could rest, having yielded half the light.

Bereishit, Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Bo, Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

~ Dan Bellm, from Practice


This morning I was reading Brodsky’s Watermark, which is poetic and thus healing. I find that what is healing is the reading of good poetry (with or without line-breaks – I don't mean prose poems, which I detest, but poetic prose in essays, travel writing, just meditations). It’s like listening to classical music, or to the slow lapping of waves. While firmly grounded in both time and space, it connects us with the timeless.

Both poems are good examples of interweave (or “braiding,” as B.F. Fairchild calls it). Pedestrian writing lacks the interweave with the limitless. The very word “poetic” implies an interweave with the transcendent.

Good writing is like a finely woven fabric. It consists of the interweave of the limitless, the eternal, with tangible reality -- both parts have to be there. The limiting factors (story, structure) need to be expanded by the limitless (music, the mental plane, imagery; this is one of my greatest discoveries: imagery is limitless).

In both poems, the candles are part of a ritual, a connection with a transcendent plane we don’t understand, yet whose presence nurtures us. Perhaps it’s enough that for a moment we step out of the daily tasks into the timeless – as again we light the candles, watching the faint, warm light.


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